'YOU CAN GET lucky in basketball," Ed Stefanski, the Sixers' new president/general manager was saying amid all the interviews yesterday. "Because you only put five guys on the court at one time."
A year ago, hell, even 5 months ago, this would sound like new-guy spin, especially in a league where one player can outearn the other four starters of a team, a league that leans heavily on size, a league where the only thing rarer than a dominant big man is the trading of one.
But as if on cue, here come the Boston Celtics into town tonight, proving with remarkable emphasis that Stefanski wasn't just talking yesterday. Less than 6 months after those little white pingpong balls disappeared on the Celts like a leprechaun's pot - and with them the chance to draft either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant - Boston's 14-2 NBA-best record is a living, breathing and sometimes breathtaking example of what can happen - with luck.
Lots and lots of luck.
Two blockbuster summer trades and a now-not-later philosophy has flipped the Celtics from among the NBA's worst last season to among its best so far this year. A team summarized by Bill Reynolds, of the Providence Journal, last June as "a young team that lacks a defensive presence in the middle, can't stop anyone when it counts, and has had too many seasons recently that too few people care about," has been transformed - largely through the trade acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen - into a talented and unselfish band that scores and defends with equal passion, a team that is likely to quadruple its nine TD Banknorth Garden sellouts from last season.
"I haven't seen anything like this around here in 20 years," Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy said in the Boston Globe recently of the excitement surrounding the team.
The Celtics, whose point differential of 13.5 is by far the NBA's best, lead the NBA in every meaningful defensive category, and the margin in most categories is ridiculously healthy. Fears that the three veteran stars would get in each other's way have been replaced by an excitement over their complementary styles.
"I've been impressed with how hard they are playing," Celtics executive director of basketball operations and general manager Danny Ainge said this week. "And I've been impressed with how well they have come together defensively . . .
"It's an emphasis [Celtics coach] Doc [Rivers] has been preaching ever since he's been here. But he always had those young teams, and it's a lot easier with veterans. We felt we needed to be a good defensive team to be a good basketball team. Offensively, we come and go. But, so far, defense has been our constant."
It was 21 years ago that Len Bias died, just days after the Celtics appeared to have recharged their dynasty by maneuvering to take him with the No. 2 pick. Instead of replenishing a team already creaking under the advancing age of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the pick started two decades worth of misfortune and missteps for a team that fortune historically smiled upon. Reggie Lewis' shocking death in 1993, another unlucky bounce of those annoying white balls in 1997 when their 15-win team did not get Tim Duncan, Rick Pitino's impatiently comical mismanagement as coach and team president - all contributed to the demise of what had been, for much of its history, the NBA's marquee franchise.
The pattern seemed unaltered when the Celtics, with the second-best chance to draft first last June, wound up with the fifth pick instead.
The chances of that happening were about 1-in-500.
But hitting on those long odds became their shamrock. On draft night, Ainge packaged fifth pick Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak and former Saint Joseph's star Delonte West for Ray Allen. That turned Boston into a desirable spot for Garnett, who agreed to a trade once his contract was renegotiated and extended by the Celtics.
Snickers followed and continue to follow among league executives that Minnesota GM Kevin McHale, Ainge's former Celtics teammate, took good care of an old friend, or was visited by the ghost of Red Auerbach. More likely is that the Timberwolves were stripping down for a rebuilding process via the expiring contracts and two first-round draft picks they received in return.
That certainly is an option for Stefanski, especially since he inherits a team that fits precisely that newspaper description of last season's Celtics, particularly the part about "too many seasons recently that too few people care about."
Stefanski said over and over again yesterday that everything about the team is under review. The coaches, the players, and, of course, the options that are bound to be out there when trades begin in 2 weeks.
So tell me, Ed:
Do you feel "lucky?"
"I guess my point is that if you have two or three guys who are pretty good, and you get one guy who jumps in there ... "
"Well, who knows?"